Rewarding Teachers with Merit-Based Pay

It’s time to rethink how we evaluate and fairly compensate the best educators.

David Cutler
12 min readJun 17, 2018
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Merit-based teacher pay remains one the most controversial issues in education reform, and for good reason. Opponents argue that it’s almost impossible to measure teacher effectiveness, and that providing additional pay for improved performance promotes divisiveness, not cooperation among colleagues.

Proponents, however, maintain that good work, as in most other professions, deserves special financial recognition. While measuring teacher effectiveness is challenging, it’s not impossible, these proponents say. At the very least, educators must strive to do a better job of implementing thorough performance reviews, the results of which should play a big role in determining any additional compensation.

Over the past few weeks, I have given much thought to merit-based teacher pay. Originally, I had intended to remain neutral on this subject, at least with respect to public commentary. But having thought at length, I believe it appropriate to express my views on such a crucial matter, even though many terrific teachers, administrators, and reformers disagree.

I support merit-based teacher pay, and here’s why…

The problem with the single-salary (or step-and-lane) system

Gary Ritter, recent coauthor of A Straightforward Guide to Teacher Merit Pay: Encouraging and Rewarding Schoolwide Improvement, offers a short but effective comparison of how merit-based pay differs from the single-salary system.

“The single-salary system used by most districts and states provides teacher compensation bonuses for ‘inputs,’ such as years of experience or additional credentials,” writes Ritter, a professor in the College of Education and Health Professions at the University of Arkansas. “Merit-based compensation connects bonuses to performance or ‘outputs,’ such as gains in observation scores, portfolio assessments, and student achievement.”

Ritter reinforces my opinion that effectiveness doesn’t necessarily correlate with classroom longevity. A teacher who has 20-plus years of experience does not automatically merit higher pay than a more effective newcomer. The best teachers will always strive to learn new and effective pedagogical approaches, regardless of pay. All the same, I’m dubious that the same holds true for all teachers, especially those with tenure, who may lack sufficient incentive to do anything differently.

All of this is complicated by the fact that academics disagree on whether years in the classroom, starting at the rookie-stage, however defined, make one better at his or her job. In a Dec. 1, 2013 piece in the News & Observer, Seasoned teachers worth so much more in NC,” Helen F. Ladd, a professor of public policy and economics at Duke University, says that “experienced teachers, on average, are more effective at raising student achievement.”

To get a very different take, I recently spoke with Ritter: “There is a line of research and a near consensus around the idea that first‑year teachers are less good than others, and that experience matters up to roughly anywhere between years two, three, four and five,” he says, noting that a person’s experience after this point means significantly less in terms of improved effectiveness.

I respect both viewpoints, but I side with Ritter. Too many talented young teachers are leaving the profession, in large part because they aren’t being appropriately compensated. In a Dec. 11, 2011 Huffington Post article, “Top 5 Reasons Why Teacher Turnover is Rising,” “low wages” ranks at number 3, right behind “testing pressure” and “poor working conditions.”

“The current national average starting salary for teachers is just above $35,000. (Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said last month that teachers should be making between $60,000 and $150,000 annually based on performance),” according to that story.

I love teaching, and I don’t imagine myself happy doing anything else. Yet I worry about one day having a family and not being able to provide adequately for them. In a shaky economy with soaring costs, I genuinely fear that even a combined income will not cover monthly payments. At some point, I will have to face an inevitable option: I can either leave teaching or move into administration. While I would likely choose the latter, neither option appeals to me. I know that I’m better suited to making a difference inside the classroom, where students surround me.

Ritter nicely captures my frustration. “We don’t want teachers leaving the field, particularly the good ones, and going as far away from kids as possible,” he tells me. “I might say, ‘I like being in education, but I can’t get any raises or any financial recognition here. I’d like to, so I’m going to move instead into administration.’ That’s great that we’re keeping these excellent folks in the education system. It’s still moving them away from kids. The only way they can get recognized or paid more is by moving away from kids, which is not want we want.”

Even if a teacher knows that he or she is bad at the job, and everybody else knows it, too, by and large, the profession offers little incentive for leaving — and it’s very difficult to fire an ineffective teacher. This person still enjoys the same benefits and job security.

Another underlying problem with the single-salary system is that it presumes all teachers are equally effective. This simply isn’t true, and the issue of not giving better teachers better pay seems to me political in nature. After all, parents want only the best for their kids, and who in their right mind wouldn’t complain about Johnny or Sally being taught by a less-experienced teacher? I can only begin to imagine the headache this would cause, and I don’t have an ideal solution, but we might look at the medical profession for some direction. A medical resident might evaluate or perform surgery on a patient, but not without close oversight by a specialist. The same should hold true for matching effective and passionate teacher-mentors with newer recruits, or less effective veterans.

How would a merit-pay system work?

In most merit-based systems, teachers still receive the step-and-lane salary. The chief difference is that based on thorough performance evaluations, one can also earn extra money from a bonus fund. And the amount one can earn extra should be a big percentage of base salary, at least 15%.

To get a better idea of why some schools offer merit pay, also commonly known as performance recognition, last week, I interviewed Dr. Rand Harrington, assistant head of The Blake School in Northrop Campus, Minnesota. “Rewarding teachers for being at a school for a long time and for having higher degrees is generally how compensation is determined,” he says. “We were trying to figure out a way that we could align our compensation to quality, to our best teachers, rather than just those other metrics that didn’t seem to correlate as well.”

Public schools are also exploring merit-based pay. “Michelle Prater, spokeswoman for the Ohio Education Association, Ohio’s primary teachers’ union, said hundreds of Ohio school districts and union locals took first steps in exploring ‘alternative compensation models’ through the federal Race to the Top program,” the Dayton Daily News reported in a June 3, 2013 article, “Schools push merit pay for teachers.”

Charter schools are also flirting with this idea. In a July 5, 2012 Los Angeles Daily News article, “Green Dot charter schools move toward merit pay instead of seniority for teachers,” reporter Rob Kuznia writes of a union-backed plan to reward strong performing teachers up to $2,000 a year extra. This isn’t nearly enough, but it’s a positive first step. In an otherwise competitive, hot-tempered and divisive education climate, it seems to me that public, charter, and independent schools have a great opportunity to work together on how best to implement performance evaluations and, by extension, merit-based pay.

But there is serious resistance.

Merit pay critics say that money doesn’t incentivize teachers; most of whom do their jobs for the sheer love of it. In a July 20, 2011 Hechinger Report column, “Is the Merit Pay Debate Settled?,” Leo Casey, vice president for academic high schools at the United Federation of Teachers, says, “a well-established, substantial body of educational research . . . has found individual merit pay for teachers fails to produce meaningful gains in student achievement.”

Alongside Casey’s column appears Ritter’s response, arguing that “the possibility of earning financial rewards will motivate current teachers to focus their efforts on student achievement through innovation and additional effort.”

Critics argue that most teachers already go to great lengths to achieve these aims, and that no amount of money, or anything else for that matter, could make them work any harder. I think anybody would be hard pressed to challenge this claim successfully, but that’s not to say that teacher’s don’t or shouldn’t value money. Money matters. I’m agitated by what appears to be some larger societal belief that teaching more than suffices as its own reward, no matter how many sacrifices one makes to prepare students for our nation’s future.

Once again, Ritter reinforces my belief: “Money does matter; otherwise, teachers wouldn’t move to districts that pay more,” he says. “The data show they do. Teachers wouldn’t strike when they don’t feel like they’re being paid enough. They do . . . . Teachers are humans. Incentives do matter. Teachers aren’t different than any other person in the world in this way.”

I’d like to think that most teachers can’t imagine themselves working any harder, and that no bonus, however big, could possibly change their behavior. In this instance, I love the idea of these individuals earning a bonus each year, not only as a well-deserved perk, but also to urge others to hone their craft.

“If you’re already working as hard as you can and you’re exceeding expectations every year, there’s always the guy down the hall who’s not,” Ritter tells me, noting that eventually, a poorer performing teacher will either do something differently, or leave the field altogether.

Along these lines, critics claim that competition would create animosity between teachers, as well as disincentivize cooperation. This is a fair criticism, but as Ritter says, “the devil is in the details.” If a school offered just 10 bonuses to the top-ten teachers, this would certainly wreak havoc. In this scenario, few if any would work together for the benefit of all students. Indeed, some might even try to undermine others’ performance.

“In a system like that, what we refer to in our book as a zero-sum or fixed-pot system, I believe that is a legit concern,” Ritter says.

Instead, all teachers should qualify to earn up to a maximum bonus. Moreover, with a large portion of one’s evaluation tied to effective group participation, teachers would find greater incentive to share and discuss lessons and approaches. This scenario encourages teachers to support each other professionally and financially. What happens if a teacher working in this system finds a new and effective way to teach fractions to fourth graders?

“I’m not going to keep it to myself, because I want to win the bonus,” Ritter says. “I’m going to tell my other fourth grade math teachers that this works. The better all of our fourth graders do, the higher my rate is, and the higher bonus I get.”

How to measure teacher effectiveness?

By far, the largest criticism of merit-based pay is that it’s almost impossible to measure teacher effectiveness — the most crucial component involved in determining additional compensation. I recently stumbled upon a post on Diane Ravitch’s blog, in which the policy analyst and former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education decries tying standardized testing to performance reviews.

“Most scholars agree that test-based accountability is unstable and inaccurate,” Ravitch writes. “The teacher who gets a high rating one year may get a low rating the next year, because the ratings fluctuate depending on who is in the class, not teacher quality. The so-called ‘reformers’ appear to be completely ignorant of or indifferent to the research documenting the unreliability of test-based accountability.”

To a large extent, I agree with Ravitch. I have long criticized standardized tests, good for little more than telling how well one can fill in a bubble. It would be a lousy idea to associate the performance of one’s students on a state test with a teacher’s effectiveness, and by extension how much extra that teacher should earn. Why not then completely dissociate standardized testing from teacher performance evaluations, or, in the spirit of compromise, rely on those tests as just one of many indicators?

“It’s a bad idea to create a merit pay plan that has really dumb parameters,” Ritter says, noting that teachers should instead be evaluated in part on how much growth each individual student shows over each year, and not in relation to how everybody else in the district or state performs.

I acknowledge that it’s very difficult to measure teacher effectiveness. One year, I could have exceptionally bright, motivated students, eager to learn and perform at the highest levels. Another year, strictly by chance, I could be faced with having students who lack those admirable qualities. Instead of relying on any test to demonstrate classroom effectiveness, which fails to capture student growth, administrators need to devise an evaluation system based on fairness and transparency.

Harrington tells me that The Blake School uses the Danielson framework, named after Charlotte Danielson, a recognized expert in the area of teacher effectiveness. The Danielson framework, I learn, has four practical evaluation standards: planning and preparation, classroom management, instruction, and professional responsibilities.

The Blake School introduced the Danielson framework in 2004, and in 2009, then-Head of School John Gulla decided to link performance reviews to additional pay. Every three years, teachers go through what Harrington calls an “Enhanced Performance Review.” As it currently stands, only teachers who complete their second review, mostly after six years, are eligible for the bonus. “If you’re a mix of proficient and distinguished, then you get the middle‑level bonus. If you’re mostly proficient, you will get the lowest-level bonus. But they’re all bonuses. They’re all good,” Harrington says.

I like the Danielson framework, which takes into account that a teacher’s influence ventures far beyond the classroom walls. In the hallways, dining room, playing field, chaperoning, or even out in public, teachers are always on duty. It matters if a teacher comes to sporting events, plays or other student-run events. It matters if a teacher arrives early or stays late to help a student perfect that college essay, or understand a challenging concept.

It matters even more if teachers do none of those things. Students lack respect for such individuals, and without respect, building a healthy student-teacher relationship is impossible.

Measuring the remaining three Danielson standards is more challenging, but it’s not at all impossible.

“You’ve got to be in the classroom all the time,” Harrington says. “It’s a lot of work for administrators.”

Harrington uses evaluation as a tool to enhance his connection with his teachers and what they are doing with students inside the classroom. He is constantly observing classes, and although this is hard, time-consuming work, a thorough evaluation process has helped him keep a solid pulse of the campus.

“It used to be we never had conversations with teachers unless we were about to let them go,” Harrington says. “You only had conversations with teachers that were not doing well. Now, we’re having conversations with everybody, and having conversations with the best teachers. You learn a lot by having conversations with your best teachers.”

Harrington also relies on his department chairs, who must “work on a whole other level,” to help evaluate teachers. More than anything, though, Harrington tells me, the evaluation process has held him accountable. “If you’re going to award a bonus or not award a bonus to a teacher, you’ve got to know that teacher’s practice pretty well and have had a lot of conversations,” Harrington says. “There were difficult conversations that needed to be had, that people had not had over many years, and that needed to happen. By having this, it forced those conversations.”

But Harrington says that this evaluation process, and the merit-based pay that goes with it, isn’t without risk.

“You either do it really well, or you don’t do it at all, because I do think you can do damage to a community. If you start awarding bonuses capriciously, and if the administrators don’t have the ability to have meaningful conversations about what good teaching is about, then don’t try this,” he says.

I believe that all schools must adopt thorough and meaningful evaluations, and that the difficulty or risk involved in this endeavor is no excuse for inaction. There is no one right way to go about doing this, but schools must carefully craft their own review guidelines with input from teachers and administrators. The evaluation process needs to be as clear as possible. Teachers must know exactly what’s involved in the review, and administrators must encourage and offer professional development, affording every opportunity for success.

Once more, Ritter captures my sentiments. “It seems clear to me that not measuring effectiveness at all is bad,” he tells me. “It would be much better if we tried to measure it. We’re never going to measure it perfectly. But the attempt of measuring effectiveness and then having some consequences attached to effectiveness is an important signal. It’s an important signal that we, as school leaders, care about effectiveness. We care about how good you are with the kids. We’re going to reward and recognize that.”

I couldn’t agree more.



David Cutler

A high school history and journalism teacher from Massachusetts.